Close your eyes and picture a stage. Picture the set – maybe it’s a realistic room or an abstract array of colours and shapes. Maybe it’s a single chair floating in a black-box studio. Most importantly though, picture it without any people.
Think of that moment of settling into your seat, coat stowed away, plastic cup of wine in hand, house lights still on. You then take in the stage – feel it, whether it is the room, shapes, or simply the chair. Think of the moment of inhaling the air from the auditorium as the lights dim. I’ve been thinking about it a lot around Halloween: the alchemy and witchcraft involved in creating a space that can come to life with no one on it.
To quote the second line of Peter Brook’s The Empty Space: “A man walks across this empty space, while someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”
With the right design decisions, the act of theatre is already engaged on the bare stage
Well I tentatively disagree. With the right design decisions, the act of theatre is already engaged on the bare stage, while this man is in the wings still doing his costume up.
I think there are three basic principles to making a space live when it’s empty. The first is storytelling. When I designed my first play at university, the director decided that the post-fight scene change should just be the set and music.
I was nervous because it felt like too much time for people to look at my spotty, self-aware, embarrassed-teenager-of-a-set design. But she was adamant that the previously unnoticed happy family photo would strike a chord, the baby shoes would inspire melancholy and that the totally anachronistic light switches would… okay they were a mistake. It was my first show – leave me alone.
Another enchanting trick is really good composition. A small splash of distinctive colour in three places around the set, creating an illuminati-style triangle. The rule of thirds. The golden ratio. All the same things that keep you looking at a painting of a landscape longer than you’d ever want to look at an actual field.
Finally, and probably most importantly, you’ll need a really amazing lighting designer. Someone who loves and understands the world of the play as much as you do. Someone who can make that single chair or beloved sofa do a full soliloquy just by cross-fading the light source from side light to the lamp in the corner.
Lighting designers can make a totally uninhabited space feel like a ballet. They are the necromancers of our industry.
Listen, if the van with the actors shows up at a venue, and the van with the set doesn’t, you can still do the play. The other way round, no matter how charged the space, or how good the family photo, it won’t hold for two and a half hours. But those supernatural moments of stillness and calm can contain absolute drama. They are important and worth paying attention to.